Bugs and the Movies

The anthrax scare has been very bad for Democrat politicians, the US Post Office and cocaine dealers.

Public health officials, on the other hand, seem to be doing just fine.

The official government line on anthrax is so bizarre it’s like a bad script for a B movie. Every day we get a fresh version, things gets murkier and the questions pile up.

Are the spores coming from Islamabad or Hoboken?

Is it natural anthrax or.militarized?

What if the bug-bomber’s next virus of choice is smallpox? Do we have sufficient vaccine? Will the vaccine still work? Can the public be kept informed while at the same time unpanicked?

In search of answers I turn to that great font of truth, the American Movie. Hollywood’s treatment of epidemics and bugs over the past 70 years can surely provide us with some blueprint for the future.

With credit to Halliwell’s Film Guide, Google, and thousands of hours of movie -watching research during the mid-part of the last century, what follows is an evaluation of the quality and social impact of the selected films.

The bug movies fall into four categories.

  1. The Glory Days Or Western Civilization 2: Bugs 0.

In 1926, Paul De Kruif’s book, Microbe Hunters — required reading in many pre-WWII high schools — glorified man’s triumph over disease. In inspirational terms the powerful volume told how brave medical heroes often had to battle the existing order as well as the bugs.

The message was clear: science had no limits.

Hollywood picked up the celebratory theme of Microbe Hunters with the 1936 Paul Muni film, The Story of Louis Pasteur. This black and white drama portrays the great French biologist’s struggle to vanquish the bugs, a tale every schoolboy was familiar with.

In the same spirit, Hollywood produced the 1940 movie, Dr. Erhlich’s Magic Bullet. Erhlich, the German scientist, is portrayed by veteran actor Edward G. Robinson. The theme is a recurrent one — the brilliant bug-hunter encounters more difficulty with administrators than he does finding a cure for venereal disease.

In the 1950 Elia Kazan film, Panic in the Streets, the public health official tracks down a carrier of bubonic plague in New Orlean’s seamy waterfront district. Reflecting the times, this public health detective is a dedicated and respected public servant.

Note to the reader: Science’s conquest of bugs reached its pinnacle in the 1970s.

As decades go, the 1970s was no bargain. The Vietnam War had sapped resources and morality, but at least the killing had stopped and the troops were home. The Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and the social upheaval of that decade had set in motion an attack on property and a political correctness that endure to this day. Watergate mucked up the political scene, but it was a scandal either enjoyed or suffered by beltway and media insiders only. To most everybody else, it was simply good theater.

Medical science had earned our undying faith. Tuberculosis and polio were something only our grandparents remembered. Smallpox was nearly eradicated and "wonder drugs" reinforced the growing faith that science was omnipotent. The wonder drugs also helped create a perverse sexual revolution that would burn out of control until the end of the decade and the arrival of AIDS.

  1. Movies about AIDS Score: Everybody loses.

Although dozens of films have been made about AIDS, only The Band Played On (1993), based on Randy Shilts’s best seller, made a serious effort to discover the origins and spread of the killer virus.

All other movies like Parting Glances (1986) and Philadelphia (1994) were sentimental, politically-driven vehicles to raise consciousness and money for the virus’s lobbyists.

  1. Science Fiction Movies Score: Sci Fi: One, Bugs: One

Two major films best represent the genre. The Andromeda Strain (1971) is a well-crafted adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best seller. The bug hunters are detectives seeking to find and stamp out a fictional killer. This deadly bug arrives in a spaceship and carelessness allows it to escape the decontamination process. Suspense builds, and the viewer is irresistibly drawn into the drama. (One wonders if Crichton had to import his killer bug from outer space because science had eliminated all the domestic varieties.)

In the 1953 film adaptation of socialist HG Wells’s book, War of the Worlds, our bad bugs do good things. In this epic, the inhuman invaders from Mars are terrorizing, ruthless, unfeeling, indestructible — and just when the earthlings are ready to pack it in, the Martian war vessels start to crash to earth, their occupants all dead.

The Martians were immune to any weapons earthlings could muster, but they were unable to deal with the lowest of Earth’s life forms, our bugs.

  1. Ebola Score: Everyone loses.

Ebola is the mother of all bugs. In the real world it’s a quick killing African virus. We don’t know the origins, we don’t know the cure.

What Aids does to its host in ten years, Ebola accomplishes in ten days, author Richard Preston reminds us in his bestselling book, The Hot Zone.

Outbreak (1995), based on Preston’s book, may be the only film dealing with Ebola. It’s no surprise that the movie version scares the bejesus out of audiences.

In the film Dustin Hoffman heads up the team of germ sleuths tracking the fictionalized version of the Ebola virus.

Although Outbreak won critical acclaim, after forty minutes of watching Dustin Hoffman mumbling in a space-like suit, this viewer began to root for the virus.

The movie is flawed. It presumes to be based on a real event, but as horrible as the disease is, there has never been an instance when its spread would be considered epidemic. For this reason it fails as a medical hunt, and it self-disqualifies as science fiction.

A physician friend asked if there were any movies dealing with the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. There weren’t any, I told him, and wondered why he had asked.

He stunned me with the following data about the Spanish flu:

There were 25 million dead worldwide between August 1918 and March 1919 — more than died during the bubonic plague 1347 AD-1352.

500,000 Americans succumbed to the dreaded flu. Not many cities or hamlets were spared.

Like the common cold, people learn to live with the flu, the runny nose, congestion, fever and cough. The discomfort is usually short-lived, however, and the victim generally recovers. (20,000 die annually from influenza.) Not in 1918.

Once stricken the victims of Spanish influenza suffered severe congestion and their lungs blackened. Bloody sputum and sudden nose bleeds soiled the bed linen. Within days the patient turned a tint of blue and was almost certainly dying. Health authorities had never encountered anything like it before. This flu spread more rapidly than any previous strain, and the recovery rate was dismally low.

Unlike the garden variety influenza that strikes the elderly and very young, the 1918 edition attacked healthy, young adults. It took a deadly toll on those American troops returning from Europe at the end of WWI. These troops were the primary carriers of the virus, something else we can thank the Apostle Woodrow for.

It’s one thing to ponder fictitious diseases and unlikely epidemics. It’s something else to reflect on a real worldwide disaster.

The vaccines they tried in 1918 proved useless. To prevent the spread of the disease gauze surgical masks were required in San Francisco, but they were an effort in futility.

The country was so devastated by the epidemic that the end of WWI was a secondary event and hardly celebrated.

Now you can understand why people are so quick to forget the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. It’s a case of plain old denial.

The nagging question is ever present: How would our society in the year 2001 handle a 1918 variety strain of influenza?

Not too well, I fear.

Yes, today’s medical environment could not have been imagined 80 years ago. We have better understanding of cellular structure, and made impressive strides in developing vaccines. But the influenza virus changes so rapidly that all our advances might not make a bit of difference.

So you thought anthrax was scary.